Cubs

Cubs: How Kyle Hendricks became such a critical part of The Plan

Cubs: How Kyle Hendricks became such a critical part of The Plan

Kyle Hendricks gets overshadowed in a rotation fronted by a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and two-time World Series champions with a $155 million contract (Jon Lester) and a love-to-hate reputation among opposing fans and players (John Lackey).

Hendricks also gets overlooked on a high-wattage team with an All-Star infield featuring faces of the franchise Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Plus a three-time Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon) with a distinctive look, more than 313,000 Twitter followers, a growing T-shirt empire and those Binny’s Beverage Depot commercials.

But in trying to create a sense of momentum after the All-Star break, the Cubs will give the ball to Hendricks on Friday afternoon against the Texas Rangers, before the American League’s best team unleashes Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels this weekend at Wrigley Field.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of headlines on our team, so I’m pretty far down there,” Hendricks said with a laugh. “It’s fine with me. I like it that way.

“If there’s not much going on, not much hype, that’s fine. I’m just going out there, trying to do my thing and win some ballgames. That’s it.”

Hendricks actually leads a slumping rotation with a 2.55 ERA, ranking sixth in the National League between Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez (2.52) and New York Mets superhero Noah Syndergaard (2.56). Opponents have generated only a .589 OPS against Hendricks, a shutdown that matches up to Stephen Strasburg’s 12-0 start for the Washington Nationals (.584). A 1.03 WHIP also makes Hendricks a top-10 NL pitcher in that category.

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No doubt, there’s an element of Maddon manipulating the game, playing matchups and minimizing damage. But Hendricks did beat Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke and the extreme-makeover Arizona Diamondbacks in his first start this season. Hendricks also threw six scoreless innings against the first-place Nationals during that four-game sweep at Wrigley Field in early May.

Hendricks lost a 1-0 decision to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in front of a sellout crowd at AT&T Park and a national-TV audience. Hendricks beat the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates in June, outperforming pitching prodigies Julio Urias and Jameson Taillon.

“Kyle’s been as steady as anybody among us,” Maddon said.

Hendricks would come across as edgier if he had long hair, a beard, a body covered with tattoos and no filter during his postgame press conferences. His potential would seem more intriguing if he went to a junior college you never heard of before. Self-promotion is not his specialty. He gets recognized in Chicago “once in a blue moon.”

It might not translate on TV or in street clothes, but Hendricks does have broad shoulders and long arms, growing into what’s become a 6-foot-3, 190-pound body. His father, John, had worked as a golf pro in California.

Dartmouth College head coach Bob Whalen – whose late father, “Chick,” had been a longtime scout for the Pirates – noticed the projectable pitching frame and the levers and athleticism to repeat a delivery during a showcase at Dodger Stadium.

In terms of perception, Hendricks would have overlapped with Bryant for a season at the University of San Diego if he had gone to his second choice out of Capistrano Valley High School.

Forget the polite manner off the field, Hendricks has enough guts and beneath-the-surface intensity to go 22-15 with a 3.23 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP through his first 359 innings in The Show. 

“He always knew what he wanted to do,” Whalen said. “He absolutely believed in his heart that he was going to pitch in the big leagues.”

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That Ivy League degree in economics obviously helps Hendricks process and apply the game-planning system engineered by coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello. Hendricks has fully incorporated his curveball and four-seam fastball – increasing the effectiveness of his changeup and two-seam fastball – and become more comfortable pitching inside and making adjustments on the fly.

“Learning how to mix those weapons has made me a completely different guy,” Hendricks said.

This is the best-case scenario Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group hoped for while Ryan Dempster played “Golden Tee” in the team’s Clark Street headquarters on July 31, 2012, consenting to a deal with the Rangers and watching the seconds tick down on the MLB Network trade-deadline clock.

Unless a mystery team reads the market’s supply-and-demand dynamics and becomes a surprise seller, the Cubs are realistic enough to know they probably won’t feel as desperate as other contenders and won’t land a frontline starting pitcher at this year’s deadline.

Hendricks is 26 years old, under club control through the 2020 season and ready to reboot a 53-35 team that lost 15 of its last 21 games before the All-Star break and hasn’t won consecutive series since early-to-mid June.

“We’ve handled all the pressure, all the expectations,” Hendricks said. “Obviously, we’re in a tough stretch right now, but like Joe says: Every team’s going to go through that. (Keeping) up the pace we were on for the first part of the year – no team does that.

“Going through spurts like this, sometimes it makes you stronger – if you can learn from it and come out of it. Hopefully, we can just take the positives out of it, turn it around after this break and get back to winning.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.